A few summers ago my wife and I decided to take a two day vacation to Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. We had heard that this small rocky island was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places anywhere in New England. The ferry ride from Port Clyde to Monhegan took about one hour and gave time to read a little about this mystical place to which we were headed.
Monhegan is a small mile square island a little over ten miles from the Maine coast. It is accessible only by boat or ferry and there are no cars or paved roads on the island. Apparently the explorer John Smith visited in the early 1600’s and the island was known to Native Americans as a prime fishing area. In more recent times Monhegan Island has become a lobster fishing center, a haven for artists, and a summer retreat for people attracted to its scenery, its flora and fauna, its history and its many miles of spectacular cliff side hiking. It is also home to less than two dozen lobstermen and their families who make up most of the year round population.
Since lobster fishing is one of Maine’s largest industries I was not surprised to see hundreds of multicolored lobster buoys attached to lobster traps floating in the harbor as we left Port Clyde. However, as we approached the harbor at Monhegan Island I was struck by the fact that in this active lobster fishing community there were no colorful buoys floating about. It was also surprising to see high stacks of lobster traps, buoys and fishing lines all along the grass roadway up to our Bed and Breakfast.
After settling in I wandered down to the Mohegan Store to satisfy my curiosity about the lack of lobster activity and over the next hour or so discovered a wealth of information from locals about the challenge of lobster fishing in Maine and especially here at Mohegan Island. Apparently the lobster industry has been ailing up and down the Maine coast through overharvesting. Maine lobstermen have traditionally protected their share of the resource through lobstering territories These territories were unofficial with no laws involved. In any port the lobstermen would have an informal agreement where each member of the community may lay his traps. Youngsters who want to enter the fishery could start with a few traps or work as a “sternman” baiting traps and carting gear for an established fisherman. Eventually he or she would be allowed to take over a territory. Should a newcomer try to enter the game they might find their gear moved or even have their buoy line cut. Since our visit to Monhegan Island this summer, this intense competition became violent in Martinicus, Maine where a longtime lobsterman and his daughter drew guns on two fellow islanders. The lobsterman fired, shooting a man he had known for decades.
In 1998 in a bold move to ensure a continual livelihood for their families, the fishing community of Monhegan Island was able to get a law passed in the State of Maine for exclusive rights for the lobstering families of the island to a two mile radius of ocean around their rock bound island. In exchange lobstering was limited off Monhegan from December 1 to June 25. In 2007 the fishermen agreed to a 475 trap maximum (from a maximum of 600) in exchange for two additional months in their season. This year the Maine State Department of Marine Resources imposed a 300 trap limit on each fisherman saying that while this is the lowest trap limit in Maine, the lobstermen benefit from the no-competition that rings the island. But the fishermen here say that the low prices for their catch, the fewer traps and the high cost of fuel and electricity have brought their survival as a fishing community into question.
My wife and I left Monhegan Island with a deep appreciation for its beauty and peacefulness and an even deeper appreciation for the lobstermen and their families who keep the island together and who eek out a living in a harsh and competitive environment. Hopefully the demand for Maine lobster will continue to expand and with guaranteed overnight shipping more consumers throughout the country will have the opportunity to experience the wonderful taste of fresh Maine lobster.